Book Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian

The cover of Josh Hanagarne's The World's Strongest LibrarianThe World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family
by Josh Hanagarne
Gotham Books, 2013
291 pages (hardcover)

Available
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Powell’s

“There’s nothing relevant about this place,” declares librarian Josh Hanagarne of the Salt Lake City Public Library. “It’s so much more. A community that doesn’t think it needs a library isn’t a community for whom a library is irrelevant. It’s a community that’s ill. It doesn’t know what it needs.”

In The World’s Strongest Librarian, Hanagarne doesn’t defend libraries with the typical librarian rhetoric. But then, there’s nothing typical about Hanagarne. At 6’7”, he bench presses 350 pounds, trains with kettlebells, and competes in Highland Games (a Scottish throwing competition, complete with kilts). He was raised in the LDS Church. And he has Tourette Syndrome.

His struggle to control the tics caused by this neurological condition is what led him to start training, discovering that physical exertion and deliberate breathing seemed to have a calming effect on Misty (aka “Miss T”; since the disease appears to have a mind of its own, he went ahead and gave it a name).

Another result of his battle with Tourette’s is his choice of professions. Determined not to let the disease run his life, he chose a career where involuntary vocalization and flailing arms would be the most noticeable—sitting at the quiet information desk at the center of a library. The guy really likes a challenge.

But he’s also quick to acknowledge the support of his family, whom he describes with great warmth and humor. His mother especially earns a starring role, having raised him with as much commitment to the public library as to the Mormon temple. Early in the book, he describes her this way:

…she gardened for many of the same reasons that she practiced devout Mormonism: Her parents did it, it gave her a sense of purpose, and it allowed her a source of reliable beauty, no matter how ugly the rest of the world might get.

Hanagarne grew up in the church, signed up to serve a mission with thousands of other nineteen-year-old Mormons, studied the Book of Mormon in college, and eventually married a Mormon girl (“The primary goal for a Mormon,” he notes, “is to marry a worthy spouse in the temple. Marriage is part of the Plan of Salvation.”) But later, a combination of personal disagreements with the church, his wide reading, and a growing sense of his own responsibilities takes some of the shine off organized religion. While he comes to question the tenets of the faith he was raised in–and the value of religious faith altogether—he remains appreciative of the gifts bestowed by that faith, like his close-knit family:

Whether or not following the doctrine meant that we’d be together in Heaven, the family-centric aspects of the gospel led to a family that I wanted to spend eternity with.

The book chapters are charmingly organized by topic—labeled with their corresponding Dewey Decimal classifications–and begin with a wide range of encounters Hanagarne has had with patrons at the library where he works. Homeless people bathing in the restroom. Kids carving “I love math!” (and far less desirable graffiti) on the furniture. Parents who leave their kids there all day while they’re at work, and dog owners who let their pets wreak havoc on storytime while they play Farmville in the computer lab. Old people afraid of the young people hanging out in the teen section.

The way he tells these stories, it’s the crazy stuff that happens in libraries that makes them so valuable. That’s why he advocates for them as they are, instead of joining the call for libraries to become more “relevant” in the digital age. Describing one encounter with a racist, he says:

How do we solve this conundrum? The short answer is: I don’t know. But while we may never find specific, actionable solutions, a good library’s existence is a potential step forward for a community. If hate and fear have ignorance at their core, maybe the library can curb their effects, if only by offering ideas and neutrality. It’s a safe place to explore, to meet with other minds, to touch other centuries, religions, races, and learn what you truly think about the world.

Sometimes I get tired of reading memoirs, because many try so hard to be original. But this one doesn’t need to try. Hanagarne’s personal history and point of view are genuinely intriguing. His voice is dry, self-deprecating, honest and funny. He honors his religious heritage even while distancing himself from it. And he demonstrates the value of reading, testing ideas, and pushing yourself—despite your unique challenges—to grow into someone you can respect.

In search of belief changing ideas